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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Four Spaces of Belonging

We all have a need to belong. But we don’t all experience belonging in the same way.

I knew a woman who couldn’t understand why people didn’t stay for coffee hour after church. She felt that church wasn’t complete without the coffee and conversation that occurred after the service. “Don’t they know they would feel more a part of the church if they came for coffee?” she would ask.

I knew a man who couldn’t understand why more people weren’t interested in belonging to a small group. “Church,” he said, “should be a place where people can share their deepest selves with one another. Don’t they know what they are missing?”

Both Mrs. Coffee Hour and Mr. Small Group didn’t understand that people experience belonging in different ways.

Joseph Myers, in his book The Search to Belong: Rethinking Intimacy, Community and Small Groups, says that there are four different “spaces of belonging” – Public, Social,
Personal and Intimate.

Public Space is “where we connect through outside an influence,” for example, at a concert, sporting event or political rally. My wife and I went to see “The Blue Man Show” in Chicago a few years ago. Even though we didn’t know a single other person by name, we had an intense feeling of belonging to the group participating in that delightful event.

Social Space is where we share “snap-shots” of ourselves and form “first impressions” of one another. Social space is where “neighbour” relationships are formed.

Personal Space is where we experience belonging among “close friends” – people with whom we feel comfortable sharing personal things about ourselves – but not everything.

That level of belonging is reserved for Intimate Space. This space is best described by the expression “naked but unashamed.” It is the space where can share our deepest selves. Most people only ever have handful of truly intimate relationships.

Myers argues that we can experience genuine belonging in all four of these spaces. It’s a mistake to think that the goal of belonging is always intimacy, and that to social or public belonging is invalid. They are four different experiences.

The challenge for churches is not to limit genuine belonging to social events or small groups, but to provide opportunities to belong in all four spaces.

Public Belonging
The main public event in most churches is Sunday worship. People should feel connected –
both to God and to those around them – whether they know anyone else in the congregation or not. This means that worship should be planned and led with care and commitment. People aren’t looking for polished perfection, but they are looking for a message that speaks to them.

It’s essential that churches do the very best with what they have. This means not trying to be something other than what they are, by, for example, building worship around classical choral music when they no longer have the musicians to do it well.

It also means removing barriers to participation, including cryptic “insider” language, messages that reflect the minister’s latest hobby horse, confusing orders of service, or making people guess where the washrooms are.

Think: If I was visiting this church for the first time, what would it feel like?

Social Belonging
Social belonging is often dismissed as superficial. It may carry the negative connotation of “mere socializing.” But social space is perhaps the most critical space because it is there that people will decide whether they want to get to know you better.

Social space is where first impressions are formed. Visitors will often decide within minutes whether this is the church for them.

The message to be communicated in social space is “We really are glad you’re here.” It should come with no strings attached, so that people do not feel like you are only interested in what they might do for you.

Personal Belonging
The church should be a safe place where people can form close relationships. This requires both openness and receptivity, but also respect for healthy boundaries.

To experience personal belonging, people need to trust that they can ask questions without being dismissed, express opinions without being judged, contribute without being shut down, and risk opening themselves without being the subjects of gossip or backbiting.

Intimate Belonging 
I think intimacy in churches is somewhat overrated. It’s not reasonable to expect that most people will look for true intimacy in the church.

Intimacy comes with risks, and so it needs to be handled with care. People who seek intimacy in the church may be broken or vulnerable, or they may crave intimacy in unhealthy ways.

The church’s best role may be to support and care for people so they can sustain healthy intimacy in other areas of their lives -- their marriages, families and friendships.

All four kinds of belonging are authentic and valid. Churches should strive to provide opportunities to experience belonging in all four spaces. 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Nine Ways to Reimagine Your Church's Ministry

Many churches are finding it harder and harder to sustain full time paid ministry. The most common response is to reduce ministry hours, or look for a cheaper alternative – student supply, for example, or only calling ministers in salary Category A or B.

These responses often end up being short term gain for long term pain. They take the pressure off the budget now, but usually contribute to the long-term process of decline. Fewer hours means less ministry. And it becomes harder to attract ministers who need to make a living.

When we’re faced with an urgent situation, we look for a quick fix. But there is no quick fix. The warning signs of decline have been with us for thirty years. It didn’t happen overnight. It won’t be fixed overnight.

Preparing for the future is more about transforming deeply entrenched attitudes and habits than it is about finding some magic button we can press. That change in attitude can only happen with patience and persistence over time – which is hard to do when anxiety about the future is high. But it’s what is called for.

Here are nine ways that even the smallest congregation can reimagine and refocus its ministry.

Start with Why
“Why are we here? What is our purpose?” These are the basic questions every church should ask.
These are deep questions of identity and mission. They can’t be answered with nice-sounding generalities (“We seek to be an inclusive community, welcoming to all”) but with clear specifics. What exactly are we here for? What difference does it make that we are here?
Management guru Peter Drucker says that the purpose of a church is to produce “transformed individuals.” Whose lives will be changed and in what way because of the church? That’s what churches need to wrestle with honestly, imaginatively, courageously and prayerfully.

God gives the church its purpose -- to carry on Christ’s work through the power of the Spirit. But each community needs to work out for itself what it means in practical terms to be faithful to that purpose. We need to create as many opportunities as we can think of to talk about this question. It’s number one because it’s the most important.  

Look at Assets First

Assets are all the things we have that make ministry possible. They include buildings and money, but they also include less tangible things like the abilities of our members, accumulated wisdom and experience, connections to the community, the faith we have inherited and the presence of the Spirit.

Even the smallest community has a wealth of assets, many of which they may not recognize. When we are struggling, it’s easy to see only deficits – what we don’t have rather than what we do have. The church begins to regard itself a problem to be solved. And because it sees only what is lacking, it looks outside for an “expert” solution, which makes it feel even more inadequate.

Focusing on assets can open our eyes to the potential of the community to creatively address its challenges.  While outside knowledge and experience is valuable, the answer is found first of all “in here” – in the assets and capacities already present in the community.

Be realistic about your deficits. But start with your assets.

Gather in order to Scatter

We’re conditioned to think that “church” happens when people come into the building, for worship, meetings or activities. Therefore, we see our main job as bringing more people in. It’s important to bring people in, but in our time, the impact of the church will felt be less through the programs and activities within the church, and more when people are equipped to live out their faith in their daily lives – in their families, workplaces, neighborhoods and communities. We need to see the church as the place where we gather in order to be equipped to scatter into God’s world.

Distinguish Means from Ends

A church’s “end” is its mission or purpose (not to be confused with a “mission statement.”) One way to discern our ends is to answer three questions suggested by Gil Rendle and Alice Mann:

Who are we?
What is God calling us to do?
Who is our neighbor?

The church’s means are all the ways it puts the answers to these questions into practice, which includes money, buildings and staff.

It’s common in churches to talk about a means – a balanced budget, a beloved building, a longstanding program – as if it were an end in itself. We need to be sure we are putting our means at the service of our ends – and be willing to find other means if the ones we have aren’t doing the job.  

Rethink Why you need a Minister
Churches often think of ministry as a list of tasks -- preaching, visiting, going to meetings.
Many churches with part time ministers expect the minister to show up for worship every Sunday. Since most people’s primary experience of church is Sunday morning, this shields the congregation from the full consequences of part time ministry because there is no time left for mission or outreach.  

Maybe having your part time minister spend most of his or her time preparing for a one hour Sunday service is not the best use of their time. Maybe there are other, more important things your minister should be doing. Start with your “Why?” and ask how the paid staff you have can best serve that end.

(An interesting example is Cariboo Presbyterian Church in British Columbia. This church is a network of house churches in small, scattered communities. The paid ministry staff train and equip local people to lead worship, prayer and pastoral care in each house church. See )

Commit to Collaborate Upfront

Cooperating with other churches sounds like a good idea. But if you wait till you’re looking for a new minister, it’s too late. Your immediate needs of the moment may not line up with those of neighboring churches.  

The commitment to a cooperative vision should be made now so that you can respond to future ministry needs out of that commitment rather than trying to patch together an arrangement on short notice.

And – your potential cooperative partners may not be United Churches!

Think Bi-Vocational

Part-time ministry may save the congregation money, but it doesn’t provide the minister with a living income. Congregations need to be proactive and innovative in thinking about what other sources of income could be available to potential candidates. This might mean seeking a minister who has marketable skills in an area where there is need within the community and making that part of the search process. We can no longer assume that full time ministry is the norm, but it should not be entirely up to ministers to bear the burden of that reality.

Your Church is not Your Building

The largest churches in the New Testament had around fifty people. That’s how many would fit in someone’s house. And the vast majority of churches in the world today have fewer than fifty members. The problem is not that our congregations are too small to be effective. It’s that many of them are struggling to maintain aging and costly buildings.

Ask what the life and ministry of your church could look like apart from the building in which it is currently housed. This is hard, because we’re so used to thinking of the church as a building. Closing the building usually means closing the church.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Imagine how your church could still be a vibrant Christian community if you didn’t have your building.

Adapting to change is a spiritual, not just an organizational challenge. Change is a journey of the heart. Find ways to invite as many people in your church as possible into that journey. Discover ways for them to participate in the long-term spiritual discerning of your congregation. And trust that God is not finished with the church.

Rev. Paul Miller

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Five Things Churches Should Say More

Back in October, 2014, I wrote a post entitled "Ten Things Churches Should Stop Saying." I've had more response to that piece than anything else I have written. 

Lately I've been thinking about a different question:  What should churches should say more often

Here are five of them. 

1.  "Why Are We Here?"
Many of us grew up in a world where nobody had to ask why the church existed. It existed because there were so many people who wanted to attend church! Respectable people attended church. Church was the glue that held the community together. It's where our spiritual needs were met. It was an extension of the family. It's where people found belonging. It's where children learned right from wrong.  

No more. Most people don't believe there is any connection between belonging to a church and being a good person. And spirituality has become more of an individual rather than a communal pursuit. 

People are no longer willing to belong to something simply because it's what they've always done. It's not enough to just show up. They need to see it as worthwhile. They want to know it's making a difference. 

For these reasons, churches absolutely need to ask "Why are we here? What difference does it make that we are here? What difference would it make if we weren't here?" We can no longer say "Everybody knows what a church is for." 

Churches need to be intentional about asking "Why are we here?"

2.  "Let's try that." 
Have you ever made a suggestion at a meeting, and someone says "Oh, we tried that in 1974 and it didn't work." And that's the end of it? 

Churches are famously risk averse. The fact is, though, that failure is an essential ingredient in growth. Children would never learn to walk or talk if they weren't willing to fail, over and over again. I recently heard that "FAIL" means "First Attempt In Learning." 

There are two reasons we might avoid experimenting. It will cost money. And people will be upset. 

Experiments don't have to cost a lot. It costs nothing to experiment with a new way of welcoming people. Or to discover what's going on in your neighborhood. Or to tell the story of your church. 

And, if you connect your experiments to your mission and purpose, people might still be upset, but you'll be able to justify your experiment. 

Experiments don't need to be permanent. Even if they fail, you'll have learned something and the church will be better for it.

Churches need to cultivate an experimental mindset -- to try things, evaluate them, learn from them, and if they don't work, try something else. 

3.  "I don't believe I know you." 
A friend of mine told me that, a few years ago, she felt a need to return to church after many years away. One Sunday she went to the local United Church. "The service was nice," she said, "but nobody talked to me." She went back several more Sundays. Nobody talked to her. Her mother-in-law came to visit at Easter time and they went to church together. Nobody talked to them. "So I just never went back." 

Sometimes church people say, "I don't want to introduce myself to someone and have them say 'I've been coming to this church for five years.' I'd be embarrassed." 

We need to get over this fear. It takes a lot of courage for someone to step into a new church where most people know one another. It's better to make a mistake than to have someone come to our church and be ignored. 

Next time you see someone you don't recognize, take the risk of introducing yourself. As Martin Luther famously said, "Sin boldly!"

4.  "Thank You" 
People like to be appreciated. When they do give something, they want to someone to notice. 

It's simple and basic. But many churches are not very good at thanking people. The most they do is send out a generic "Thank you for your contribution" note with the annual income tax receipt. 

Sometimes we avoid saying thank you in case we miss someone. We need to get over that fear. We should spread gratitude as widely as we can, not by avoiding it in case we leave someone out. 

It's not just about acknowledging individuals, though, it's also about creating a culture of gratitude in which we value people for who they are as well as what they do. It's about communicating on an ongoing basis that we are thankful that people are part of the community. 

We should cultivate gratitude as an antidote to the carping, criticizing mindset that can easily take hold. 

Being a Christian means being thankful. We need to say "Thank you" as often and in as many ways as possible. 

5.  "Let's pray about that." 
The church is more than a human organization. It's the Body of Christ. Churches exist because God has called them into existence and sustains them with the Holy Spirit. We are branches connected to the vine. Prayer binds us together, opens us to the Spirit, keeps us connected to the source of our life. 

Churches should not only be communities of planning and action, but communities of prayer. 

And that means more than asking the minister to lead a short devotional at the beginning of the Board meeting. One of the most disempowering things we have done is to remove prayer from the people and hand it over to the "professionals." 

Churches face enormous and, in some cases, agonizing challenges. We do not have the resources to sustain ourselves. We need to rely on prayer -- prayer practiced by as many people, on as many occasions, and in as many different ways as we can imagine. 

Those are five things I can think of that churches should say more often. Can you think of others? 

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Outlier Churches

One mark of the times in which we live is that everybody is in a hurry. Nobody likes to wait. We want things NOW. We get frustrated if we have to wait two weeks to see the doctor – or 10 seconds to download a computer file.

This has had a huge impact on churches. For one thing, people aren’t as committed financially. I was reading about the fundraising challenges of Not-for-Profit organizations, including churches. People today will open their wallets, but they want to see “immediate social impact.” If they don’t see results, they’ll take their money elsewhere. There are fewer and fewer people prepared to build an ongoing financial relationship with an organization and stick with it over years.

People also want immediate experience. It’s not enough just to show up. They expect something to happen when they come. I’ve heard that first time visitors to your church will decide within seconds whether it’s the place for them, based on how it makes them feel. If the church isn’t “doing anything” for them, they’ll be gone.

Studies and polls suggest that this attitude will only become more prevalent. It’s a big challenge, because the Christian life is not only an experience, it’s a way of being meant to be cultivated over a lifetime. It’s about relationships that take time to mature. Church doesn’t lend itself to an adrenaline rush.

Here’s the thing, though, about basing our decisions on statistics of what is true for most people. While it may be true of most people, it’s not true of all people. There are still many people who continue to yearn for what Eugene Peterson (quoting of all people Friedrich Nietzsche) called “a long obedience in the same direction.”

The question is, will we focus mainly on the rule? Or on the exceptions?

Should we emphasize broad experience in order to appeal to as many as possible? Or deep commitment knowing that only a few will respond? The problem with a lot of our churches is that they don’t do either very well. They may tweak things on the surface, but the basic experience stays the same. And they don’t create a lot of long term growth in faith.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but most United Churches simply can’t compete in the marketplace of experience. We don’t have the resources to be that “happening church” that will draw in large crowds of seekers. It’s not in our DNA.

What many of our churches do have is the capacity to develop spiritually mature disciples of Jesus. For my money, we’d be better to focus on what we can do, rather than what we wish we could do.

Let me play with an idea from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success.
Gladwell looks at really successful people, the ones who rise to the top, who stand out above the crowd. He calls them “outliers.”

Two things are true of most outliers. First, they were born with natural advantages. Most NHL hockey players have birthdays in January, February and March. Why? Well, Gladwell says, from the time they first lace up their skates, they are playing against kids that may be almost a full year younger than they are – a huge advantage for a seven-year-old. They are bigger, stronger, faster. They get picked for the best teams with the best coaches. The gap between them and the kids born in October, November and December grows wider.

Second, they practice more. The rule of thumb is that it takes 10,000 hours to become really good at something. All the violinists at the Juilliard School of Music are really talented. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be there. What separates the very best from the very good is that they practice two hours a day longer than most of their peers. Why were The Beatles better than everybody else? Gladwell argues it was because when they were toiling in the brothels of Hamburg, they were forced to play from early afternoon to late at night every day. Practice really does make perfect.

So let’s draw an analogy to churches. Is it possible that at least some of our churches could become outliers?
Most congregations have built-in advantages. Even the smallest church has at least a core of people who have been deeply formed in Christian faith, who know Jesus, practice prayer, and live out the Gospel in their everyday lives. This wealth of spiritual maturity is a tremendous hidden asset.

The problem is, they’re often out of practice. They haven’t been challenged or given an opportunity to grow into mature leaders who can really shape the character of the church.

So what if at least some of our congregations really focused on building on the assets of faith present among them, and calling forth a commitment to grow and mature over the long haul?

The truth is that there will be fewer of us in the future – fewer congregations and fewer people in those that remain. And maybe not 1 in 100 are prepared to make the kind of commitment that would be required to produce an “Outlier” church.

But Jesus’ parable of the sower reminds us that impact is not always measured by numbers. If we could shift our focus to growing Outlier churches, it could make a difference out of all proportion to our size.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Life-Changing Words

When I was in my first year of university I read a sermon by theologian Paul Tillich entitled “You Are Accepted.”
Paul Tillich

“Sometimes … a wave of light breaks into our darkness and it is as though a voice were saying, ‘You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for that name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted.’ If that happens to us, we experience grace.”  (Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, 162)

Forty years ago, these words changed my life. When I read them, it was as if the scales fell from my eyes and I could see. In a flash, the Christian message that I had been hearing since childhood all made sense. It was grace, all grace. Whatever I had done, whatever I had failed to do made no difference to God’s love for me.  These words, and Paul’s Letter to the Romans on which they are based, set me free. I’ve been living out that change ever since.
Sometimes we hear something that radically changes our perspective and causes us to see everything in a new light.

I had a similar experience, not quite as intense, but still significant, reading words by Peter
Peter Drucker
Drucker, the legendary business management guru. Drucker writes about the difference between profit-making businesses and not-for-profit organizations, including churches. (He calls them “social sector” organizations.)

Both kinds of organizations produce things. A business’s products, he says, are whatever goods and services it makes that it sells to customers to generate profits.

But what is the “product” of a not-for-profit? A church? Drucker’s answer:  “Transformed individuals.” The “product” of not-for-profit organizations is the change that they bring about in people’s lives.

This completely altered the way I looked at the church and my role as a minister. It is so deeply ingrained to think of church as producing religious or spiritual “goods and services” (programs, activities, services) that we provide to “customers” in order to keep them satisfied. (If you don’t agree, try suggesting that you stop providing some of your church’s most treasured goods and services, and see what the reaction is.)

But Drucker helped me see that our job is not to produce goods and services that people consume. And our measure of success is not how much our customers are willing to “pay” for them (with their money and participation) or how happy they are.

Our task, our mission, is to bring about change in people’s lives – the change promised by the Gospel.
Now, not everybody wants to be changed.  People may want things to be different, but they don’t want to change themselves. Often, in fact, they look to the church to enable them to stay just the way they are. In effect, they see the church’s role as sheltering them from the need to change.

And some people have a pre-packaged idea of what “being changed” means. I’ve met charismatics, for instance, who believe that a real Christian is someone who has been baptized in the Spirit and received the gift of tongues. If that hasn’t happened, it means you haven’t changed. You’re still the same old sinner.

But there’s room for a much more diverse and open understanding of what a changed individual might be. We see people being changed in our churches all the time. The lonely find belonging. The angry find the ability to forgive. The guilt-ridden find the ability to be forgiven. The prejudiced find understanding. The confused find a purpose.  The fearful find peace. The discouraged find hope. These changes are transformative.

The shift that needs to occur is for churches to begin putting transformed lives ahead of programs run, money raised, bums in seats, peace and tranquillity as the metrics of success. Granted, they’re harder to measure, but when it happens, the change unmistakable.

Our mission is to see people’s lives changed by the life-changing message of the Good News of Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Peace Be With You

Most churches agree that they should reach out into the community beyond their church. But how do you do that? What does it look like? Where do you start?

Easy to say. Hard to do.

We might find some guidance in Luke 10: 1-11. Jesus sends seventy of his followers out to the towns and villages to announce the presence of the Kingdom in preparation for Jesus’ arrival. This passage is about meeting people where they are, not where we are. It’s about going out, not waiting for people to come in. It’s about receiving hospitality from our culture, not just giving hospitality. It’s about travelling light, not weighed down with all sorts of “baggage.” It’s about offering the peace of the Gospel and not worrying about whether people will accept it or not. It’s about believing that God is already active in people’s lives, and the church needs to catch up to what God is doing.

For that reason, many think it’s an important text for the church to understand and follow today.  
Jesus told his followers, “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ If
anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you.” (Luke 10:5-6)
I wonder – what would it mean for us today to say “Peace to this house”?

In Hebrew and Arabic, “Peace be with you” -- Shalom aleichem, Salaam aleikum – is an everyday greeting, like “Hello, how are you” is for us.  “Passing the peace” in church can be just a ritualized way of saying “Good morning.”

But something tells me Jesus had more in mind here than just a polite greeting when he told his followers to go out with an offer of peace. It is really an invitation to be open to the powerful presence of God. They were not "just words" but words that conveyed the reality of God's peace. 

But again – How are we to imagine what that might look like for us today? Surely, we’re not going to literally knock on people’s doors, invite ourselves in and say “Peace be on this house.” 

I got a little glimpse of what might be involved today in saying “Peace to this house” through a conversation that I witnessed several years ago when I was waiting to have laser surgery on my eyes.

I got my first pair of glasses when I was 8 and my first pair of contact lenses when I was 18. After 35 years, my contacts were starting to bother me and I hate wearing glasses, so I decided to go for corrective laser surgery.

The clinic I went to was a bit of an assembly line. The day I went there about 20 patients waiting for cataract or laser surgery in one afternoon. We were all given blue hair nets and stretchy covers for our shoes, and we were herded  into a room to wait our turn.

The tension in the room was pretty high. After all, we were about to have sharp things stuck in our eyes.

No one was saying much. We were all looking down at our blue booties. Then one older lady said to a younger woman sitting beside her, “So, dear, what do you do? Are you in school?”

The young woman was a little taken aback. “Uh, no,” she replied. “I work.”

“Oh, and where do you work? At a store?”

“No, I own my own business.”

“Really? Good for you. You’re so young. What kind of business is it?”

“Well, actually, I own a tattoo parlour.”

Without missing a beat, the older lady said, “That is so interesting.” And then she asked a number of questions. Where is it? How many employees do you have? Who’s minding the shop today while you’re here? How do people decide what tattoo to get? What are the most popular? Are there any that you won’t do?

Before long, the blanket of anxiety in the room had lifted, there was laughter and several people were merrily chatting with their neighbors.

This conversation has stuck in my mind for many years. It seems to me a model of how to connect with people we meet. My guess is that the older woman was a church-goer. She had that church lady vibe about her – in the best way – a kind of unselfconscious openness and friendliness. But she wasn’t there with any kind of church agenda. She was simply offering no-strings-attached friendship to a much younger woman with whom she probably had very little in common.

I’ve reflected on what she did that we could learn from.

First, she took a risk. How did she know that the younger woman wouldn’t tell her to mind her own business? She didn’t know. But she initiated a conversation anyway. I thought that took courage.

Second, she took a genuine interest in the younger woman’s life – a life I’m sure she couldn’t imagine. She met her where she was. It might sound like she was prying, but really she wasn’t.

Third, she didn’t judge. She didn’t say, “Why in the world would someone get a tattoo” or, “I think tattoos are so ugly.” She invited her to share something of her world.

I don’t really know what the tattoo parlour woman was feeling at the time, or if she even remembers the conversation, but it seemed to me to be an act of genuine kindness.

Church people often express terror at the prospect of talking to someone they don’t know. What if I say the wrong thing? What if they reject me? What if seems like I’m being pushy?

This lady at the eye clinic demonstrated that it’s possible to simply invite someone into a place where they can share something about themselves, and that we can receive that sharing with grace and generosity. That’s how relationships begin and it’s through relationships that faith, hope and love are shared.

There is always the risk that our offer will be rejected.  In which case, says Jesus, you move on. But in these days of so much loneliness and isolation, it’s much more likely that offer of peace will be accepted.

This gave me a little insight into what I think Jesus meant when he told his followers to say “Peace be to this house.”  And a clue that might guide us as we seek to be the church today. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

The Church is Like A ...

“This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival
A joy, a depression, a meanness
Some momentary awareness comes
As an unexpected visitor
Welcome and entertain them all!
Be grateful for whoever comes
Because each has been sent as a guide.”

These words by the Persian poet Rumi were recorded by the band Coldplay. The poem compares his life to a guesthouse where different experiences come to stay for a while. All need to be welcomed, because all have something to teach. 

This is an excellent example of an analogy. 

Analogies are verbal or visual comparisons. 

“All the world’s a stage.” (Shakespeare)
"My love is like a red, red rose." (Burns)
“Life is like a box of chocolates.” (Forrest Gump)

Analogies are powerful tools for learning and imagining. Like this visual analogy comparing cigarettes to a shotgun.
Analogies are becoming increasingly important in the church. When things are clear and straightforward and everyone understands what they mean, you don’t need analogies so much. But in times like these, when Christian faith and the place of the church in society is becoming less clear, analogies can be really helpful.

Some common examples – “The church is a family.” “The church is a business.” In a recent blog post, I compared the church to an airport.

The important thing about analogies, however, is knowing that they have their limits. You can only push them so far. 

We can learn something about the church by comparing it to a family, or a business, or an airport. But we get into trouble if we forget that in certain important respects, the church is not like a family, a business, or an airport.

In my last two posts, I drew analogies from the world of marketing. The demise of Sam the Record Man can teach us that, while our core message stays the same, the way we deliver it needs to change. The recent success of A & W can teach us the importance of focusing on the essentials.

Analogies between the church and marketing can be helpful when it comes to the question of How? How do we communicate? How do we connect?

But those analogies can break down when it comes to another question -- Why?
Why does the church exist? 

Businesses exist to sell products to consumers. But the church exists – well, why does the church exist? To worship God? To teach people to love God and love their neighbour? To continue the work of Jesus in the world? All of the above?

Marketing analogies aren’t helpful if they make us think of people primarily as customers to be sold something. All too often, that’s how churches do think. What “product” can we come up with that will attract people to come in and part with their time and their money? How can we stop losing “market share” to the mega-church down the street, or the shopping mall?

Peter Drucker
The great management guru Peter Drucker said that the difference between a for-profit business and an organization like a church is in the nature of their product. The product of the business is a good or service that they sell to a customer. 

The church’s product is people. What churches “produce,” Drucker says, is transformed individuals. They are the people who are changed, equipped and inspired to live out the Good News in their daily lives.

Used properly, analogies can deepen our understanding and awaken our imaginations. Just remember that any analogy can only be pushed so far.